Advanced ESL Activity: English Debates

April 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve been busy job hunting for the last week, still no luck, so I’ve been a little too busy to come up with really good PPT’s or ideas for class. Fortunately when dealing with advanced English students there are lots of alternative lessons that require almost zero prep time.

One successful and instructive ESL activity is a debate.

Now when I say ‘debate’ what I really focus on in the first half of the class is simply how to argue your point of successfully in an informal debate. I don’t bother teaching the rules of a formal debate, or how to organize a debate, I teach them how to get their point of view across at a meeting with a boss or co-workers.

Starting the Debating Lesson

My students are all advanced or at least high intermediate English speakers, so I don’t have to worry about definitions or anything like that. However if they were lower level I would write a basic definition on the board and ask how a debate is different from an argument.

This week I began by explaining why knowing how to debate was useful. If they were discussing pay raises with a future boss, pushing their own ideas onto unwilling co-workers or dealing with parents who wanted their children to get a higher mark, knowing how to talk persuasively would be handy.

Many Chinese students have never heard this from a teacher. They do it with friends sometimes, but many of them are very bad at persuasion when it comes to anyone with any kind of authority.

Getting the English Students Talking

After the brief introduction I started asking the students the same question: What is important in a debate?

Sometimes the students try to answer, sometimes they don’t. It depends on the class. When they try to answer I’m always encouraging, and as long as the answer is close to correct I go with it.

If they don’t answer the question I pick a student and ask them directly. This takes a little longer and I sometimes have to give hints, but it gets them talking.

The answers I always look for are:

  • Confidence and calmness
  • Listening
  • Preparation (before and during the debate)
  • Good information
  • Ask questions
  • No fillers
  • Show respect
  • Keep it simple

Some of these I came up with myself, others I read on sites such as UK Youth Parliament.

If the English students come up with other ideas such as using humour, dressing well, speaking loudly, etc, I’ll put that on the board as well. But they’re not as important in my class. (Speaking loudly is very important but I’ve told them that from day 1)

As they provide the answers, I’ll always ask why. If they can tell me great, if they can’t or only give me a simple answer I’ll elaborate on it. Some of the reasons are obvious, others aren’t, and some are meant to be twisted.

I consider myself very pragmatic, nice but willing to do whats necessary if the situation calls for it. Since most of my students are in business I want to give them the same attitude.

Remaining calm is an obvious advantage when debating. But I explained that trying to embarrass or anger an opponent is a good idea, if its done well (more on this in my next post). I also explained NOT to try this on a boss.

For having good information, I did a quick example on how statistics could be used to prove almost anything you want, and how the truth could be twisted around. Most of them knew this but had never had it bluntly pointed out to them. Thats when I explained that listening to everything their opponent said was critical in a debate to make sure they weren’t fooled.

As a teacher its up to you to decide just how you want to explain some of these issues. I’m pragmatic and cynical, so I want to prepare my students to enter the business world and not be niave.

Going over all of these points usually takes about 30 minutes, if the class is at a lower level it can take 40 or even 50 minutes. If you want to abreviate it, and only focus on the most important tips without many examples it can take 15 minutes. Personally, I like to provide examples to prove my points and my classes are 100 minutes long so its not a problem.      

The Actual ESL Debates

After all of this I prepare the debate. Depending on the time and class size I have them in groups of 2 or 3. This lets them help each other out, so that poorer students aren’t stuck trying to debate a good student all alone, and its easier to control and mark then groups of 4.

I usually had 5 topics, that was one or two more topics then groups. I tried to let the students choose the topics, but when they couldn’t come up with one I’d make one up.

The three I picked were, “Are boys better than girls” (This was funny as the classes are almost all girls), “Should school tuitions be lowered?”, and “Should teachers assign moe than 3 hours of homework a night?”

After I got the ball rolling the students would start choosing their own topics such as, “Should sexy clothes be worn in school?”, “Should students live on or off campus?”, “Should students have a part-time job?”, “Should students date in college?”  and similar themes.

If I wasn’t sure of a debate topic I’d ask the class what they thought, if they liked it the topic was used, if not it was thrown away. So we didn’t get to discuss “Computer games: good or bad?”, “Should we care about celebrity weddings?” or “Should people worry so much about their weight?”

Once we had the topics I gave them the rules of the debate:

  1. One group (chosen by a coin toss) chooses the debate topic, the other group chooses if they support or oppose the issue.
  2. They have 2-3 minutes to prepare, notes are encouraged.
  3. 1 person from group 1 speaks, followed by 1 person from group 2. Repeat until everyone has spoken. They can ask questions, answer questions or simply say their points and ideas, as long as they remain in order.
  4. After they have spoken they have a free for all discussion, until one side has lost or I stop it.
  5. 2 or 3 students from the audience are chosen at random and asked who won and why.
  6. I critique each person.

Depending on the time, group size and number of groups. My classes are very small at 13-16 students in general, so the debates typically last anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for each group. The shortest this week was 8 minutes when the groups were too shy to actually start talking to each other.

The longest was 20 minutes and could have kept going for another 10 or 15 minutes.

Benefits of the ESL Activity 

There are many benefits of having English debates.

First it helps students learn how to have informal debates in English, which is useful for future jobs.

 Sec0nd they ask questions, come up with answers, listen carefully and make their points clear in English. For an ESL class this kind of thing is rather important.

Third they have to think on their feet with minimal prep time. This is something they’re really not used to.

 Fourth they have to work with their partner if they want to win the debate. Watching how one student would jump in when their partner faltered was quite enjoyable.

The fifth benefit was that it was easy for me to do. Minimal planning, minimal talking and it was interesting to hear their ideas, thoughts and methods of winning the debates.

As a back up lesson plan for when computers fail, or an ESL lesson plan just isn’t working, a debate class is almost as good as roleplay. Better even if the students are more literal minded.

If you’ve had debates in your class I’d love to hear how it went, so leave a comment.


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